How children learn to become consumers

By | July 8, 2011

'Living-and-working-at-EureThis blog by Ben Kerrane, Lecturer in Marketing, Bradford University School of Management also appears on the Eureka! Experts blog (from the experts in play and learning at Eureka! The National Children’s Museum)

Parents in the UK are concerned about marketing to children and advertisements specifically targeted towards children. Key debates here surround “pester power” – children nagging parents until they submit/give in to the demands of their child (often for products that they don’t really need, or even want – and have asked for only because it appeared during commercial breaks).

Why are children such an important audience for marketers?

Children represent a key and profitable market for marketing practitioners. Given recent changes in family composition (eg an increase in the number of dual income and single parent families) children are taking on a greater role in family life and in family decision making. Children collectively spend $300 billion of their own income (from pocket money/allowances) each year – as well as influencing a further $1.88 trillion per year of family expenditure.

Should we protect children from the power of adverts?

The problem, then, lies in debates around whether to protect children as consumers (who may not have developed appropriate skill sets to understand the purpose of advertisements) or help them learn about consumption and commercialisation in the early stages of their development (skill sets that they will need later in their adult life).

Certain countries such as Sweden have taken a tough stance on advertising to children (Sweden banned TV adverts targeting children in 1991). But advertisers can overcome such problems eg by advertising on the internet – with a growing number of children online, and perhaps beyond their parent’s reach/protection. So, what are parents to do?

What influences children’s consumption habits?

Children primarily learn about consumption by the actions of their parents. Parents take their children on accompanied shopping trips, they teach them about saving, they introduce them to products and brands – many of which the children will retain and use throughout their lives. As such parents have a crucial role to play in teaching their children about products, values, consumption etc.

Other agents (eg friends, teachers, the media) also influence children in a consumption context. What we see is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that as children age and move into adolescence the emphasis on their parent’s advice/approval shifts somewhat (and where the opinions/advice/input from parents was once key for the child, the opinions/advice/input from peers now takes precedence). This does not mean that the input from parents is replaced – it just takes a back seat for a while. Again, this represents a challenge for parents who do not have up-to-the minute knowledge about what products are “cool” or “acceptable” for their child to own/consume.

What can parents do to educate their children about commercialised messages?

Parents need to take an interest in and discuss consumption with their children, even when their opinions start to take a back seat. What parents also need to do is encourage their children to be involved in family decision-making in order for them to be responsible adult consumers. Many parents dismiss the input that their children can have in consumption decisions, but sometimes (and particularly for high-technology products) children are all knowledgeable market-mavens. Take them shopping with you; show them your till receipts; discuss why you may have reservations with some of the products that your children may want (and, in a best case scenario, negotiate to see if some common ground can be found – skills which children will need as adult consumers).

However, it is also important to remember what your children can teach you. What many people assume is that consumer socialisation is one way. In reality children can also teach their parents (eg how to use a mobile phone/PC/programme the Sky Plus box). The problem in some families is managing the balance between parents knowing best and recognising the input of the child consumer.

One thought on “How children learn to become consumers

Comments are closed.